The Tin Can Two


In June, the Obama administration was lauded for asking Twitter not to shut down for a scheduled upgrade because doing so would cut off an important communication system for Iranians protesting the results of their election. When dissidents of regimes we do not like use Twitter to coordinate protests they are hailed as freedom fighters. But what are we to do when protesters use emerging media technologies to thwart those who seek to control dissent in our own country?

On September 24, the first day of the Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh, protesters championing a broadly anti-capitalist agenda took to the streets—some throwing rocks and breaking shop windows. Police kept protesters well away from the convention site where the leaders held their two-day meeting and sporadically attempted to disperse larger crowds with pepper gas and a sound cannon. Such crowd control tactics are typical of meetings like those held by the G-20, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and protesters have developed ways to ensure that their voices are heard and not suppressed.

Several G-20 protesters loosely defined as anarchists formed a group called the Tin Can Communications Collective. They began preparing for the protests by putting up message boards online dedicated to informing the group’s members on subjects including the coordination of meals, legal advice (what to do if arrested), and general announcements. The group’s members began following each other on Twitter so that they could share information about training sessions regarding citizens’ rights upon arrest, the location of meet-ups and marches, and information regarding recent arrests of like-minded citizens. The group’s members linked their Twitter accounts to a public LISTSERV so that messages sent to the group would be sent out to everybody who joined the LISTSERV. A wide variety of journalists, including those at CNN and the New York Times, as well as law enforcement officials joined the LISTSERV to receive updates from the group.

On the first day of the G-20 meetings, Elliot Madison, a 41-year-old member of the Tin Can Collective, set up a communication post in a hotel room in downtown Pittsburgh booked under his real name, his car parked directly in front of his room. Using a police scanner and his Twitter account, Madison sat in his hotel room and informed the LISTSERV’s members about the real-time riot-control tactics being used by law enforcement, including their location and the direction they were moving.

Within hours a number of agents from the state police busted through the door, guns drawn, and handcuffed Madison and his accomplice, Michael Wallschlaeger. More than an hour later a warrant arrived and Madison and Wallschlaeger were charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, possession of instruments of crime, and criminal use of a communication facility. By informing people that the police had issued an order to disperse, and then informing people that the police were moving to a new area (likely to issue another order to disperse), authorities claim that the defendants hindered prosecution by helping people avoid being arrested. Thus, the computer used to post the messages becomes an instrument of the crime and the use of the facility for mass communication becomes, under Pennsylvania law, a third crime.

A week after his arrest in Pittsburgh, Madison’s New York home was raided by a Joint Terrorist Task Force made up of FBI agents and members of the NYPD. After producing a warrant, the authorities proceeded to seize objects from Madison’s home including books, cell phones, computers, gas masks, caltrops, body armor, two boxes of ammunition, a pound of liquid mercury, a needlepoint of Lenin, a poster of Curious George, and notebooks full of Madison’s writings. According the warrant, authorities were searching for evidence that Madison had violated federal rioting laws, the same charge used to prosecute the Chicago Eight following the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Dora Irizarry halted examination of materials seized in the raid by FBI on grounds that they fall outside the scope of the warrant and are protected by the First Amendment.

Elliot Madison is not the first to be arrested for using Twitter as a support service for people involved in protest activity. Arrests have also occurred in Moldova, Guatemala, Honduras, and Iran, all of which were condemned by the U.S. State Department as violations of human rights. Madison’s arrest in the United States sets a dangerous precedent that repressive countries looking to crack down on dissent will likely refer to. Perhaps more troubling in an age of instant media coverage is the potential for this case to chill live reporting of events. By rebroadcasting information that was otherwise publicly available, was Elliot Madison any more culpable than reporters for more traditional media outlets reporting similar facts?

-brandonwaite

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